Friday, April 27, 2012

Movie – House of Flying Daggers (2004)

After the success of his 2002 film Hero director Zhang Yimou returned to the wuxia genre to make House of Flying Daggers.  This movie is set several hundred years later than Hero, specifically in the 9th century during the decline of the Tang Dynasty.  While Hero was overlooked by the Academy for a Cinematography nomination, House of Flying Daggers was not.  It was the only Oscar nomination the film received, though.  This time around Zhang’s movie has just as much intrigue and plotting as in Hero, but he adds a romantic component.  The result is a film that may go in directions that you are not expecting.

After playing a smaller role in Hero, Zhang Ziyi was given the female lead in House of Flying Daggers. Also starring with her in the film are Andy Lau (Infernal Affairs) and Takeshi Kaneshiro (Chungking Express, Red Cliff).  Lau plays Leo, while Kaneshiro plays Jin.  Both are police captains, but Leo is the elder and has more experience.  Zhang Ziyi plays Mei, a blind dancer.

With the decline of the Tang Dynasty, rebellion has started to grow.  The most powerful group is named the House of Flying Daggers.  They rob from the rich and give to the poor.  The police have successfully killed their leader, but somehow the rebels have gotten even stronger due to a new leader the police know little about.  Mei is suspected of having ties to the rebels; perhaps even being the daughter of the slain leader.  Jin and Leo are ordered to find and kill the new leader of the House of Flying Daggers.  They decide to start their search with Mei.

Mei ends up being taken into custody by Leo (more on that in a bit).  While she is being held, Leo and Jin come up with a plan.  Jin will pretend to be a sympathetic warrior who breaks her out of custody.  He will then help the blind woman back to safety, thus using her to lead him to the House of Flying Daggers.  Leo will be following them at a distance.  All goes according to plan, until Jin starts to develop feelings for Mei and she for him.  Jin and Leo meet periodically and Leo warns him to not get too involved.

To make it more realistic for Mei, Leo sets up a fake attack by the police on Jin and Mei.  Jin is aware this is going to happen, so he is startled when it becomes apparent the police are really trying to kill both of them.  Is Leo up to something?  When Jin gets a chance he angrily confronts Leo.  Leo explains that his superiors have taken over and a general is now in real pursuit of the “escaped” Mei and her “accomplice”.  Jin realizes that he is probably a dead man unless…..what if he switched sides to the House of Flying Daggers?  This would allow him to stay with Mei, the woman he is falling in love with.  Would they believe him, though?

There are more twists as the film goes along.  The thing to ask yourself while all of this is going on is, “Who is really scamming who?”  Like Hero, not everything you see and hear is necessarily the truth.

Once again director Zhang Yimou uses an incredible color palette throughout the film.  Zhang Ziyi plays a blind dancer, finally getting a chance to put her dance training to use for something other than martial arts.  The most stunning scene during the film is when she is challenged by Leo prior to his arrest of her.  A series of vertical drums are set up in a semi-circle around her.  He will bounce a bean off a drum and her challenge is to strike the same drum.  Being blind, she will be able to rely only on her hearing.  (Zhang Ziyi lived with a blind girl for two months to prepare for her role.)

Leo sends the first bean flying and all of a sudden Mei breaks into dance, her costume unfurls and long streamers of cloth extend from her sleeves.  She uses these to strike the correct drum.  Leo repeats the challenge, this time with multiple drums being hit.  Mei dances again, and correctly strikes each drum.  In delight Leo tosses the entire bowl of beans.  They strike many drums, rebounding again and again.  Suddenly Mei is a whirl of motion and for more than a minute she dances, twirls, and strikes drum after drum after drum.  It is a visual and auditory masterpiece.  The scene gets even better when it takes a surprise turn at the end of it.

I tried to find a clip of this scene without the surprise, but I could not.  I am embedding the scene here anyway, so be aware that there is a small spoiler at the end (nothing that will ruin the movie.)  The scene also deserves to be seen in high definition picture and sound, but this will give you an idea of what to expect, and maybe whet your appetite.



Sound played a big part in the opening scene of Hero.  It plays an even bigger part in this film because of Mei’s blindness.  There is a scene where she is searching for someone and we see her listening intently.  The sound of a beaded curtain, the slightly disrupted flow of water, even the air around her, suddenly seems so clear.  When you watch this movie make sure to turn your surround sound up, if you have it, because this is a beautiful film to listen to.

In my review of Hero I mentioned how much of a perfectionist director Zhang Yimou was when it came to making it.  With House of Flying Daggers he ran into something he couldn’t control – the weather.  It actually ended up making the climax of the film better, though. 

While much of the film was shot in China, the ending was shot in Ukraine.  When the filmmakers got there in October they found that it had already snowed.  They shot the scenes anyway and the result was a more poetic end battle.  In the film the people involved in the struggle now are shown to be so well matched, and so driven by their emotions, that their battle continues from fall into winter.  It is another visually striking section of the film.

While I consider Hero to be the better of these first two wuxia films from Zhang Yimou, House of Flying Daggers is also a very good movie.  Unless you hated Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, then I highly recommend this film.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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6 comments:

  1. This one's been stuck in my Netflix "queue hell" for far too long. I guess I need to bump this up! Nice review, Chip!

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  2. @Barry P. - Thanks. I hope you enjoy it.

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  3. Great review! I love this movie while is not as good as Hero and Crounchhing Tiger it's sti;; a great blend oof gorgeous story and amazingly choregoraphed scenes.

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  4. @Sati. - Thanks. I completely agree.

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  5. I never got around to watching this, although I've seen snippets of it on Cable.

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  6. @KimWilson - I'ts not on the 1,001 list, but if you liked Crouching Tiger and Hero then you will probably like this one, too.

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